28th January 2013. Flight VS026 from JFK to Heathrow. We sit silently, buckled and ready to take-off. It’s taking too long. Something’s delaying us. Brett, a well-groomed male air steward, approaches the man seated in front of me.
Brett: Excuse me, Mr O’Brien?
Mr O’Brien (presumably): Yes?
Brett: There’s a slight problem with your luggage. Would you mind coming with me?
He rises and his face is anxious; a natural response when questioned by airline staff. I make a comment to the man next to me about how nerve wracking it is to have your luggage searched – even though you know you’re innocent.
He nods and I hear his clear New Zealand accent “Oh yeah, it’s awful. I had it happen to me in Peru years ago”. I adopt an expression encouraging him to continue.
A half-smile flickers across his face as he shakes his head “Nah, I won’t bore you with it.”
“Oh go on” I persist. “It’ll kill a few minutes of the hours ahead”.
He looks directly at me, sizing me up. Some inexplicable deliberation takes place before he speaks “Alright … as you’re a fellow antipodean, albeit Australian”.
I smile and turn my body towards him to give him my full attention. Here is his story.
“The beating bag”
It was 2006 and I was returning from my honeymoon with my now ex-wife. We’re checked-in and ready to board our return flight to the US. A security man approaches the boarding queue and taps three of us – myself and two other men – indicating for us to follow him. I leave my wife in the queue.
In silence, we’re led through security doors and down stairs, then down further stairs and through a maze of passages. After what seems like ages, we enter a highly industrial area. We’re surrounded by conveyor belts of luggage and humming machinery. The South American heat is stifling and the smell of body odour overwhelming. We’re in the underbelly of the airport.
In the centre of the room are three heavily armed and uniformed military men, each pointing a massive gun at three individual pieces of luggage; one of them mine. I was already nervous, but I’m now shitting myself. Has someone put drugs in my bag?! My wife’s migraine medication is in that bag, and I’m not sure that it’s legal in countries outside the US. Am I about to be imprisoned?!
Nobody speaks English. One of the intensely solemn armed men has the palm of his hand on my bag and says something to me in Spanish. One of the other two passengers speaks a little English and tries to help me.
Fellow passenger (pointing to my bag): Is beating.
Fellow passenger: Si, beating.
They want me to feel my “beating” bag, so I do – with a gun aimed at me. With sudden heart-sinking horror, my emotions shift from fear to embarrassment. The bag isn’t beating, it’s vibrating. My face glows red, drawing more suspicion to me as I realise that the buzzing item is my wife’s vibrator [at this point in the man’s story I blurt out a loud laugh, drawing unwanted attention from our fellow passengers].
In desperation and zero Spanish I try to suggest that we open our bags in separate rooms so I don’t have to do this in front of such a big audience.
I tell my semi-English-speaking-fellow-traveller what’s in the bag and he instantly smiles, containing a laugh. I can’t believe this is happening.
They refuse my request to open the bag in a more private environment and, with the giant gun pointed at me, I kneel to the floor and open my bag. Everyone is quietly watching as I rummage around. The vibrator is a plug-in one and I’m hoping to locate the main power source so I can switch it off. Yes! I did it! I triumphantly, but slowly, pull out the power supply – NOT the vibrator and say “This is it. It’s switched off – nothing harmful”. I’m so relieved to not have to pull out the actual vibrator.
With disaster averted, I’m allowed to return to the departure gates. My wife’s furious and shouts out “What took you so long?! ” I shout back across the crowded departure lounge “IT WAS YOUR BLOODY VIBRATOR! IT WENT OFF IN THE LUGGAGE!!”
Mr New Zealand’s finished his story. “So that’s it. I wouldn’t believe it if it hadn’t happened to me and all I can say is if you’ve got any ‘personal’ devices in your luggage, I hope you’ve removed the batteries!”
I laugh (non-committedly ….) and move on to the next obvious conversation; how and why did Mrs New Zealand become Mrs Ex-New Zealand. The next seven hours pass quickly – for me at least.
I’m beginning to realise that I’m a “flight-talker”. When you’re seated next to me on a long-haul flight there might be an awful moment when you realise you won’t be watching any movies …